T. L. Taylor explores new worlds. Unlike traditional explorers, Taylor does not traverse oceans, scale mountains, or shoot between galaxies at warp speed. Instead, in her research as a professor of Comparative Media Studies, she breaches the divide between the physical world and the online worlds of virtual-reality computer games.
Taylor’s office on the third floor of the MIT Media Lab is packed with artifacts from her many journeys. Two of the walls are covered by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that are clearly over capacity. Another wall is adorned with a Young Frankenstein movie poster in Swedish. Every available surface is populated with tchotchkes, knick-knacks, wind-up toys and bobble heads. A collection of vintage cameras rests on a filing cabinet. The room feels warm and homey.
Taylor never expected to be a professor. Raised in a working-class family in southern California, she “wasn’t a particularly good high school student,” and worked as a waitress until a friend inspired her to give community college a shot. After three years at Chaffey Community College, Taylor transferred to the University of California, Berkeley and in 1990 received a bachelor’s degree with honors in sociology – the study of human social relationships and organization.
Taylor has kind eyes and frizzy gray dreadlocks tucked beneath a black headband. Her sentences tend to crescendo upwards and her tone becomes richer as she fights to suppress laughter and a big smile. The laughter often wins out, especially as she recalls the excitement of exploring a new cross-section of human interaction.
The field of sociology was just beginning to address the boom in Internet culture and its implications for human socialization when Taylor began her research as a graduate student at Brandeis University. She quickly became interested in researching this digital revolution and earned a Ph.D. in 2000 with a dissertation discussing human embodiment in virtual spaces. It was during her final years of graduate school in the late 1990s that Taylor discovered the slice of Internet culture that she would explore for the rest of her career: games.
Massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) are video games in which large numbers of players act simultaneously to achieve certain game-related goals in a shared online virtual environment. According to Taylor, “there’s lots of types of gameplay possible within [MMOGs] and I think that diversity of possibility is one of the things that made them so compelling a genre.”
When Taylor stumbled upon a game called EverQuest in her spare time, what began as a simple leisure activity turned into her first detailed study of a MMOG and subsequently became the subject of her first book, Play Between Worlds. In the book, Taylor examines EverQuest using an ethnographic methodology. Merriam-Webster defines ethnography as the scientific study of individual and group cultures: their shared systems of meaning, practice, identity, and values. It is often guided by what is known as “participant observation,” in which the researcher takes on dual roles as both a participant and an observer of the practice.
In EverQuest, players choose an avatar (such as a human, dwarf, barbarian, or troll, among others) that will represent them in the virtual world of the game. They then complete tasks such as killing monsters or “questing” (solving a series of clues) in order to “level up” and increase their character’s skills while exploring the game’s three-dimensional graphic environment.
The real interest for Taylor, however, lies in the interactions between players. The game’s culture is created by “forming communities and guilds” and “doing shared tasks together, whether that’s taking down a big dragon or even just building your group.”
For over a year, Taylor completely immersed herself in EverQuest. She played the game as many different types of characters, observed the actions of hundreds of other players, interacted with other players within the game space, conducted both online and offline interviews, found sites and communities supporting the gameplay, and attended player meet-ups. She examined cultural practices dictated by the game’s creators in its structure and practices that arose organically through the players’ collective actions (Taylor, 16).
According to Taylor, ethnography is “very driven by the data you’re getting in the field.” Unlike hypothesis-driven experiments, “one of the virtues of ethnography is you strive to let your assumptions be vulnerable to being challenged and taken on paths that you may not have noticed.”
One such path was the issue of authorship and property rights that arose as players began selling in-game goods and character accounts on eBay. Allowing individuals to circumvent the often-lengthy process of creating and developing an avatar’s skills created a rift within the player community and eventually led to EverQuest’s creators making the practice illegal (Taylor, 127). But did the developed avatars belong to individuals who had spent time playing as them or to the company that produced the code that made them possible? The practice also raised deeper questions about whether or not a person’s out-of-game status should be able to affect their in-game status. Should richer people be able to purchase better characters instead of spending time leveling-up (Taylor, 129)?
More recently, Taylor’s research has focused on the professionalization of the video game industry. Her second book, 2012’s Raising the Stakes, chronicles the rapid rise of the “e-sports” industry in which professional gamers compete in live, often televised, multiplayer games. She is currently studying the role of women in professional e-sports and the challenges posed to female gamers. Even more so than in traditional, offline sports, “there’s still deep systemic sexism and structural inequality” within e-sports preventing more women from pursuing a professional career or even playing recreationally. A big part of Taylor’s motivation for the research? “Equity matters. There are a lot of women who enjoy direct competition, and are ambitious, and push themselves and have a lot of joy and delight in [gaming].”
At MIT, Taylor currently teaches a class called Games and Culture, which examines the social, cultural, economic, and political aspects of digital games. She wants her students to come away with an understanding of the major areas within sociological computer game research and the significance of this research. She describes her undergraduate students as “really sharp, really hardworking and really humble” which is “a powerful combination.” The respect is clearly mutual. “T.L. Taylor is an amazing teacher and person,” said junior Marisa Nienberg, who took Taylor’s class in the spring of 2014. “She always pushes us to find meaning in places we don’t expect. And she’s one of the kindest people ever.”
To all the critics who see online spaces as inferior to physical ones and games as unworthy of academic study, Taylor counters that much can be revealed in understanding how people choose to use their leisure time, and that many people find peace and enjoyment online. Studying the nature of communities built in virtual spaces can help sociologists understand issues of identity, ritual, authorship and social dynamics in the 21st century. “Online life is just part of a broader ecology of media and leisure and everyday space in which we live,” says Taylor with a laugh. “To me, at least, it would make no sense to not pay attention to it.”
“Ethnography.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Oct. 2015.
Nienberg, Marisa. Personal interview with author. 4 Nov. 2015.
Taylor, T.L. Personal interview with author. 27 Oct. 2015.
Taylor, T.L. Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Game Culture. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006. Print.